United Kingdom An English Music: Zeb Soanes (narrator), Opus Anglicanum, Kings Place, London, 10.2.2016 (CS)
Henry Purcell: Fairest Isle
Cheryl Frances-Hoad: In the crypt of the wood
Howard Skempton: And there was war in heaven
Diana Burrell: Sing, friends, to the honour of the Lord
Sally Beamish: Sea Psalm
William Byrd: Ave Maria
Judith Bingham: In Mary’s Love
Gordon Crosse: Spring Awakening
Owain Park: Fantasia on English Children’s Songs
‘Be not afear’d, the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs.’ So began Zeb Soanes’ narration to accompany a showcase of recently commissioned works, and the audience at Kings Place certainly did enjoy airs that gave ‘delight’, though Caliban’s ‘thousand twangling instruments’ were replaced by the five unaccompanied male voices of Opus Anglicanum.
The ensemble, founded in 1988, presents what it describes as ‘intriguing and audience-friendly story-telling sequences’ crafted from narrated texts and unaccompanied sung music. Since 1992 the group has commissioned 25 new compositions, and this programme presented seven of them dating from 2000 to 2015. Each of the two sequences of new works was introduced by a work representing the heart of the English tradition of song and choral music: first, Henry Purcell’s Fairest Isle and, following the interval, William Byrd’s Ave Maria.
The interwoven narrations roved far and wide, from Shakespeare to Sassoon, from An Anatomy of Melancholy to the Psalms, from Milton to Masie and Evelyn Radford’s Musical Adventures in Cornwall. Zeb Soanes was a beguiling story-teller. (His dulcet tones are familiar; Soanes is a well-known newsreader and presenter for the BBC.) There was a relaxed naturalness about his perfectly enunciated delivery of the texts, an ease which belied the thorough preparation which is necessary to ensure such a fluent and captivating presentation. Soanes’ recounting of Sally Beamish’s Sea Psalm was particularly noteworthy. Embodying the voice of the sole surviving officer of a World War II naval accident, Soanes brought tension and drama to his account of the dramatic splitting of a ship into two halves, with great loss of life, but he was never melodramatic, always measured. His timing of the narrative episodes in this complexly structured work was flawless. The work ends with a Britten-esque invitation to join in the concluding hymn, ‘For those in peril on the sea’, but whereas Britten’s cantata St. Nicolas has an ecclesiastical context, the Sea Psalm is more dramatic in mode and audience-participation did not feel quite right at the end of such a harrowing account.
The combined five male voices formed an unusual but not unappealing amalgam. John Rowlands-Pritchard’s bass provided a strong foundation, retaining focus even when the line descended, surely and darkly, to the lowest regions. The voices of baritone Roland Robertson, the musical director of Opus Anglicanum, and tenor John Bowen each possesses a particular ‘grain’ but they blended well, and both singers moved fluently from ensemble to solo role, showing a good appreciation of the overall texture and structure of the works performed. These three experienced singers were joined by two younger voices. Stephen Burrows’ counter-tenor melded beautifully into the ensemble textures, but projected with sweetness and clarity when assuming the primary melodic role; in this regard the first verse of Fairest Isle was mellifluous and unaffected, before the countertenor was subsumed into the richer second verse. The indisposition of David de Winter necessitated an (almost literally) last-minute hunt for a replacement tenor, and Ruairi Bowen stepped confidently and impressively into the breach. His tenor is light but even across its compass, and the strength of his solo passages suggested that, if required, he can call on significant vocal power. Bowen kept a close eye on Robertson’s guiding hand, and on the other singers, but perhaps inevitably, he was at times a little reticent in the complex ensemble passages. The diction of all of the members of the ensemble was clear. One small thing, though: were the pitch-pipes really necessary?
Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s In the crypt of the wood (2015) was the most recent commission performed, in which the composer’s characteristic sensitivity to text is evidenced by the way the relationships between the diverse texts – which include excerpts from the Bible, the poetry of David Jones, The Poetic Edda, Norwegian and Anglo Saxon Rune poetry and the Latin hymn Vexilla Regis (The Holy Cross) – are given musical form. Initially, solo voices unfold melodies above or interspersed with the close-knit, homophonic ensemble statements; subsequent imitative interplay drives forward to the climactic cries to the ‘wondrous tree wound round with light’, before a gradual return to the homophonic textures of the opening is effected, conveying the peace offered by the assurance that the ‘Lord’s rood … from this loaned life will fetch me away and bring me then where is much bliss’. The vocal writing is challenging, requiring agility and precision, particularly in the complex contrapuntal episodes, and in order to ensure the simultaneous glissandi are neat and achieve their emotive effect. At times Opus Anglicanum seemed a little hesitant, but overall they succeeded in conveying the work’s spiritual mysteries and joys.
A reflective calm characterised the repetitions of Howard Skempton’s setting of text from the Book of Revelation, And there was war in heaven (2000), the ensemble capturing the incantatory mood and using melodic accents and magical harmonic inflections to create momentum. Robertson’s sustained repetitions created a strong core around which the other voices could present the text with an understated certainty. I particularly enjoyed Diana Burrell’s Sing, friends, sing to the honour of the Lord (2014), the brightness and springiness of which joyfully hailed the life of Dunstan, Anglo- Saxon musician and saint. The high-lying passages were vibrant and the lively shifts of meter – perhaps echoing the patchwork knitting of the work’s various texts – were effortlessly and meticulously co-ordinated.
Beamish’s weighty Sea Psalm is a long work and it was intelligently shaped, but I felt that the items in the second half of the performance were less surely presented. Judith Bingham’s In Mary’s Love (2012) did, however, allow us to enjoy Burrows’ gently persuasive countertenor once more, first slightly veiled and then moving to the fore, clearly and smoothly. Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary was celebrated with a strong, energised rendition of Gordon Crosse’s Spring Awakening (2010), which sets texts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the unified Alleluias of praise spilled into melismatic splendour, and the alternation of duple and triple meters, together with some surprising harmonic movements generated an exciting sense of theatre. The withdrawal and diminution towards the close was wonderfully controlled. The concluding work, Fantasia on English Children’s Songs (2013) by Owain Park, a miscellany of simple and complex treatments of various nursery favourites, made less of an impression. It seemed somewhat slight, its frivolity out of keeping with the combination of solemnity and elation that had thus far been sustained. There didn’t seem to be enough musical content of interest to sustain its 10-minute form, though I suspect that others in the audience enjoyed it rather more. A messy encore was a disappointing, and unnecessary, conclusion to what had been an appealing and intriguing performance.